Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON – Appearing at a Phoenix television studio where a picture of Piestewa Peak served as background, Sen. Jon Kyl sized up the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama with a blunt put-down.
“He clearly doesn’t have the experience to be commander-in-chief,” Kyl told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last Sunday on the “Late Edition.”
A few days earlier, discussing the war in Iraq with Blitzer, Kyl hailed Sen. John McCain’s early call for the troop surge that military officials say has helped stem the violence there.
“As a result of John McCain’s personal observations, knowledge of military affairs and courageous position when it was not politically popular to increase our troops, we have succeeded in Iraq and al-Qaida is virtually defeated there,” Kyl said.
Arizona Republican Kyl, who has long labored in McCain’s shadow despite a steady rise within GOP ranks to the position of minority whip, is playing an important role in the McCain campaign for president.
Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman, said Kyl has become one of the principal surrogates for the one-on-one TV confrontations with representatives of the Obama camp that have become a staple of television coverage of presidential races.
“He’s always an excellent option because he has such a strong understanding of the issues,” Bounds said. “His experience and his longstanding relationship with Sen. McCain are worth a lot.”
As a McCain stand-in, Kyl delivers messages that are coordinated through regular meetings with campaign staff.
“They’ll bring in Doug Holtz-Eakin (economic adviser) one week or Randy Scheuneman (foreign policy adviser) another week” to brief Republican senators, Kyl said.
A central theme is the Obama experience factor. An hour before Kyl appeared on CNN, Rep Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., delivered the message in Spanish during a Sunday morning interview show with Jorge Ramos of the Univision network.
Diaz-Balart cited Obama’s falta de experiencia, lack of experience.
“Three years ago he was in the state Legislature,” Diaz-Balart said in an interview that paired him with Obama surrogate Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif.
During an interview in his Senate office, Kyl talked of his campaign work and his relationship with McCain.
His seventh-floor office is filled with Indian art: Hopi kachina dolls, Apache and Navajo baskets, a Navajo rug. A photo of Kyl with Vice President Dick Cheney, a close friend, sits in a bookcase, near an award from the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank. His wife, Caryll, smiles from a photo attached to his phone.
Kyl said South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham is the most active senator in the McCain drive for the White House.
“Lindsey is really the bridge between those of us in the Senate who are close to John and the campaign,” he said.
But Kyl, who served in the House of Representatives from 1987 until entering the Senate eight years later, has a long history with McCain, who became a senator in 1987 after two terms in the House.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said that while McCain has become a political celebrity, Kyl “has been virtually unknown outside of Arizona.”
“In that sense, he’s a typical senator because 90 percent of them are not known,” Sabato said.
But within the Senate, Kyl has developed a reputation for a disciplined, methodical approach to his work and for mastery of complex issues from national missile defense to tax policy. Named by Time Magazine in 2006 as one of the 10 best senators, he is an effective behind-the-scenes operator.
“He’s an extremely hard worker and he knows his stuff,” said minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
McConnell said Kyl has been “very effective” as whip, a job that calls on him to keep Republican votes in line with the course set by McConnell.
Kyl exercises his wonkish passion for detail and for setting the record straight not only on the Senate floor and in his TV appearances but also in letters to newspapers.
On May 2, the Washington Post and East Valley Tribune ran letters from Kyl critical of the newspapers’ work.
“I’m a believer in a complete record,” said Kyl, who was on the debate team at the University of Arizona and practiced law in Phoenix before heading to Washington. “If you let things go that are inaccurate, then you are not being true to the writing of the record.”
Kyl is a reliable McCain surrogate on most issues, but there are several issues on which they disagree.
Energy policy, climate change and campaign finance are prominent examples in which McCain has struck a stance away from the conservative orthodoxy that Kyl embraces.
McCain opposes drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which he calls “one of the pristine places in the world.”
Kyl favors development of oil reserves in the refuge.
During an appearance last week in Prescott, Kyl called on voters to “elect people that aren’t going to be beholden to radical environmentalists,” according to a news report.
Such issues define the boundaries of Kyl’s work for the campaign. “They will call me to be a surrogate on something where they know we’re in sync,” he said.
Kyl and McCain are clearly in sync on the issue of appointments to the Supreme Court, which is likely to see several vacancies during the next administration.”This is one of the clearest distinctions between two candidates ever,” Kyl said. He noted that Obama voted against President Bush nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito, whom McCain supported.